Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 11
The sun beat down like a hammer from the cloudless sky of Outremer as they rode toward Ascalon. Well, Manfred had to admit that the hammer part could also be from the amount of wine he had drunk last night. The glare off the polished armor added insult to the throb in his head. After the departure of Eneko Lopez and his companions — and as a very odd companion indeed, Francesca de Chevreuse — and a small escort of the Ilkhan’s warriors, things had gotten a little rowdy. Manfred, in between wishing for a drink, had time now to think about that escort. It would seem as if the Ilkhan’s local representative, the Bashar Ahmbien, was sparing no effort to please the delegation from the Holy Roman Emperor. They even had a writ of safe conduct as the escort of an emissary, with the seal of the Ilkhan himself.
Ahmbien also had spared no effort in seeing they got on the road out of Jerusalem quickly. He had even intervened to deal with some awkwardness resulting from Erik having assaulted three of the local constabulary while they had been trying to arrest young Kari.
“It was a misunderstanding,” Erik said. Looking genuinely embarrassed he admitted: “I took them for back-alley knifemen.”
Manfred enormously enjoyed his gentle reproach to Erik. He hadn’t had many opportunities. “Tch. As if those assigned to patrol the bad parts of town ever indulged in that kind of thing! Anyway, luckily you didn’t kill them. The Ilkhan takes a dim view of that. Their cracked heads will mend.”
“I am sorry. I will pay weregild.”
“I already have.” Manfred did his best to shake his head in a good imitation of disappointment. “I do hope word of this never reaches Iceland. Think what your poor mother would say!”
Erik peered at him suspiciously. “You have no idea, Manfred. Mama is…”
Manfred’s composure failed then, and he collapsed into helpless laughter.
Erik did a very fine bit of glowering before starting to laugh himself. “I should have left them to arrest Kari. The best place for that boy is in jail, or out on the open prairie. I can’t imagine what possessed the Thordarson clan to bring him along.”
“Maybe they thought there would be enough space for him to be a horse-borne hooligan. From what I’ve heard, the Vinlanders are used to more space and less people.”
Erik nodded. “It is what calls to me about the place. There are mountains and valleys and plains… and then more. It is so vast and fertile.”
“And warmer than Iceland and far from your Mama, after she hears that you assaulted three officers of the law.”
Erik pulled a wry face. “There is truth in that. She is very strict in her interpretation of right and wrong. She would never have accepted Francesca.”
“You had enough trouble at first.”
“I was wrong,” Erik said simply. “I will miss her, you know.”
“Not as much as I am,” said Manfred with a wicked grin.
Erik blushed. He was still, even after Svanhild, very prudish about some things. Manfred smiled. He’d had a pleasant few minutes giving Erik a hard time. It was a good thing that they hadn’t killed the Bashar’s officers, though.
Erik rode beside him now in silence. That suited the way Manfred’s head felt, but headache or not, certain things were niggling at his mind.
“Just who is this Tarkhan Borshar?” he asked, pointing an elbow at the Mongol group who rode ahead of them. “I got the official story from Eberhart, but frankly it just doesn’t wash.”
Erik looked at the column ahead. “Eberhart says he claims to be a diplomat, but thinks that he might just be something else. I do not know the language yet, but look at the posture of his escorts. They fear him. He is a non-Mongol, yet he outranks them.”
“A spy? Something else? And we are escorting him? People might take it as our stamp of approval if he causes trouble, Erik.” Something else got through to Manfred’s mind. “What do you mean ‘know the language yet’?”
“I have decided that my penance will be to learn this language. It would have stopped me being an embarrassment to you yesterday, with Bashar Ahmbien’s officers.”
“Erik, get over it. I wasn’t embarrassed. Amused as hell, yes. Jerusalem has been less than funny. I know you well enough by know to know perfectly well that you just made a mistake, an understandable one.”
“Nonetheless, if Eberhart is right, I want to understand what they’re saying. We have a new horse boy.”
Manfred blinked. “What?”
“A brat Kari found for us. He speaks fair Frankish, and fluent Mongol. I will be taking lessons.”
“As long he also actually knows which end of a horse produces manure and which end bites, and keeps the tack in good order, we can use him. Although getting Kari to choose a horse boy may turn out to be a mistake.”
“I hope so,” said Erik. “I hope he’ll be more trouble than he’s worth. I have made Kari responsible for the boy. He says he has no parents. That may give Kari something to do besides get into trouble himself.”
Manfred shook his head. “The problem with clever ideas is that they have a habit of not working out quite the way one plans.”
David, the son of Isaac, was the horse boy in question. He was finding out that the trouble with clever ideas was that they didn’t always work out quite as one planned. It had seemed such a good scheme too. True, the Mongol overlords had very short tempers with horse-thieves. With thieves of any sort — the Yasa code was harsh. Thieves died, even if they were young thieves.
But that was for those who stole horses from them. They were fairly disinterested in horse theft from visiting crusaders — as they referred to the people of the Holy Roman Empire. They had a grudge there. They were none too keen on their vassals being great horsemen either, and taxes discouraged horse ownership amongst the non-Mongol commons. There was still a market for stolen horses, though, and these foreigners had some very fine animals. And, it would seem, no idea that they might need close guarding. He could lead a string of them off out of the stables to a buyer from Samaria and be back in Jerusalem — why did this foreigner think anyone would ever want to leave Jerusalem? — by morning. Even if they did come looking for him, he would just be one boy among many in the backstreets of Jerusalem.
Then he’d discovered the first problem with being hired by someone who didn’t speak Frankish too well. There appeared to have been a misunderstanding. He’d thought that he was being hired to work in a stable in Jerusalem. He’d been unable to bolt when he discovered they were saddling up for the ride out of the city. Well, he disliked being out of the city, but he could steal horses out here just as easily, and use one to get himself back home.
Then he’d found that the column was being escorted by the Bashar Ahmbien’s guard. He could take a chance on foreigners, but no-one messed with the Ilkhan’s men. There would be no help for it but to leave on foot as soon as he got the chance. His older brothers would laugh at him. Likely his father would beat him — as he hadn’t recommended him to this man who barely spoke Frankish, let alone Mongol.
He scowled. It was after mid-day. He should be peacefully asleep. And he’d never ridden this far before. He was going to have to cross a lot of countryside before he got back to civilization again. He’d have to see what in the way of light goods he could steal to make the exercise worthwhile.
“I feel we should be walking,” said Eneko. “Or at least walk from Bethlehem.”
“I will go by ship,” said Francesca calmly. “In case you had any delusions about me being pregnant and on a donkey.”
There was startled silence. “That’s quite close to blasphemy.”
“I just said it was out of the question. You were the one playing at being Joseph. Besides, piety is a state of the mind, not of the feet.”
There was a snort of unwilling laughter. “You do have quite a knack of putting men in their place, Francesca De Chevreuse.”
“They get so lost otherwise,” said Francesca placidly.